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Pochettino gracious and honest in first major interview since Tottenham sacking

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If you were worried that Pochettino would be bitter about his dismissal, there was no need to be. There are no hard feelings.

Tottenham Hotspur v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

We have been waiting six months for Mauricio Pochettino to break his silence over his sacking from Tottenham Hotspur last November. Understandably, he was prevented from talking to the media while he was on gardening leave. In most years, this would’ve happened at the conclusion of the Premier League season.

This isn’t most years. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that there are still nine weeks of competition remaining to be played that may or may not happen, which puts the club in the awkward situation of hearing their beloved former manager, hugely popular with the fans, speak about his dismissal while their new manager is getting ready to restart games.

But we shouldn’t have worried. Pochettino gave an insightful, honest, and refreshingly gracious interview to the media on Friday, where he talked about the end of his tenure at Spurs, his emotions at the Champions League final, and what the future may hold for him as a football manager.

The quotes can be found in The Athletic (£) who published their own context to Pochettino’s comments, but also the Evening Standard and The Independent, who each have slightly different takes. You should read the full quotes, as they’re fascinating, but we’ll pick out a few choice excerpts here.

The end of the 2018-19 season was difficult for Tottenham — they were coming off of two consecutive windows with no incoming signings, were dealing with a delayed new stadium and serious injury to Harry Kane, and yet somehow went on that magical run to the Champions League final, where it all fell apart within the first 30 seconds.

If you had to pick a moment where everything changed, that final was probably it, and Pochettino even seems to admit that going out the way that they did was a a crushing emotional blow.

“I think it was very difficult to accept the way the game went. When you prepare for three weeks and in the way we did… I think we were convinced and I was convinced that the final was going to go our way. That was completely in our minds.

“But no one is prepared after 30 seconds of the final to concede like that. The goal changed the whole game; all the emotions. It is difficult to prepare a team for that happening. But at the same time, we were better than them (on the night). We were much better than Liverpool. We were unlucky that we didn’t score. Maybe we deserved a better result but in the end, finals are about winning, about the title. It’s not about to deserve or not to deserve. There is not a day after. It is finished. Who wins has won. And if you deserve to win, or play better, or dominate the game or create more chances… it doesn’t matter.

“I was so disappointed. It was difficult to stop crying, to stop feeling bad. It was a massive achievement to get there. And you can use the example of Liverpool after they lost to Real Madrid (in the final) the season before — that was a massive motivation and inspiration to be back in the future. I knew that after five years and with the way we were working, and all the things that happened, it was going to be difficult… (it) changed a little bit in our minds the possibility to stay open to design another plan, or a strategy to build again, a different chapter… a different project should be difficult for us to maintain, to keep improving.”

It’s easy to pick through Pochettino’s thought process after that loss. This was, and he seems to recognize it, his one shot at winning a Champions League final with this group of Spurs players, whom he so carefully assembled, developed, and led. With hindsight, we now know that he knew there was a substantial rebuild coming — he hinted at a “bold new five year plan” in the weeks leading up to the final — but to go out for a, somewhat bullshit, handball and penalty in the opening minute is just the worst way to go out.

To go from such a disappointing loss in the biggest match in European club football to having to mentally prepare to rebuild your squad... it must have been difficult. It ultimately proved to be too much.

And yet, Pochettino harbors no grudges. He maintains a relationship with Daniel Levy, and knows that this is football.

“My commitment with the club, with Daniel and, of course, with the players, the fans, was massive. I said to Daniel that we finished in the way that no one wanted but the end, because of our commitment, our emotion and our feeling, it needed to happen. If not, our relationship will continue forever! And maybe that’s no good for the club or for us. I think when the decision (came), we needed to move on…

“…And always, Daniel is going to be my friend. All the people there, I have very good relationships with them. I am a football person and we understand that sometimes, the chapter finishes. Football moves very quick.”

When Pochettino was let go, especially the way he was fired and how quickly everything seemed to move, there were no doubt plenty to think that he may have had an ax to grind. So it’s incredibly refreshing to see just how magnanimous Pochettino is about leaving Spurs.

There’s a clear-eyed understanding at play in these comments. Reading between the lines, it seems that everything that brought Levy and Poch to this point — the end of a five year plan, the new stadium, an aging squad, the Champions League final — converged in a way that made it the right decision at the time, and for the right reasons.

There’s also a recognition that Pochettino wasn’t achieving what he set out to do with this year’s squad, and he makes it sound as though Levy letting him go was almost a relief in a way. Many of us suspected something like that might have happened as we deconstructed his dismissal in the days and weeks following, but so much of that introspection was buried under the emotional freight train that was Jose Mourinho and the severe injuries in early spring.

But it’s nice to hear that Pochettino isn’t holding any grudges, still thinks of Daniel Levy as a friend, and isn’t resentful with what happened. I believe him. Poch has always worn his emotions on his sleeve, and it sure looks like he’s not interested in burning bridges. He’s hinted in the past that his path might lead him back to north London someday. Maybe it will.

As for his relationship with Jose Mourinho, there are no hard feelings there either. The two are close friends, and Poch said he’s delighted that Jose has replaced him at Spurs.

“Look, with Jose, we know each other for a long time. When I was the coach of Espanyol, and he was at Real Madrid, we had a very good relationship. He’s a top coach. And in life, look what happens. I always thought I’d replace him. He was at Real Madrid. I say, ‘Oh, maybe one day I can take your place at Real Madrid’ and look at how life works out! He has taken my place at Tottenham. Unbelievable, eh?

“I am so happy that he is at Tottenham, replacing me. And of course I am happy as well to leave the club in the way that we left it, with all the facilities that are the best in the world. For sure, he is very grateful for the way that we helped to build the club, which is now his club.”

Pochettino is coy about his immediate future. Notably, he and his family chose to stay in London and not relocate to Argentina or even his beloved Spain. This was mostly due to family considerations — his son Maurizio is still in Spurs’ academy and his family is settled in London — the COVID-19 crisis has made relocation difficult in any case.

But Poch has been and will continue to be strongly linked to every major managerial position that is or will open over the next few months. The strongest links have been to Newcastle United, which looks likely to splash some serious cash should their Saudi-backed ownership sale go through, but there have been others, including Manchester City, Bayern Munich, and even Arsenal. Poch is understandably not directly addressing those rumors, and though it seems as though he would like to stay in England, for him it’s more about the project. But he will almost assuredly be heading a new club with a new project by the time the new season rolls around.

“You dream of the perfect club, the perfect project… It’s difficult to assess. From outside, it’s difficult to measure the capacity of the clubs, the capacity of the players, the squad. You need to share ideas in the moment that some club approaches you and start to talk. To try to find if the project is a good fit or not. It’s so important in this moment, when the reality comes, to try to talk.

“I still think the Premier League is the best league in the world. We enjoy it a lot. Of course, it’s one of the options. Of course, it can be my priority, but I am not closed to move to a different country. We are professional and we are going to find a way to create again and to feel good.

“If we do change the country, always we are going to miss England. We spend more than seven years in two amazing places in Southampton and London. We are very lucky people.”